They won’t take their shoes off!

 Apr 16, 2014

My partner, who is a family lawyer, says, “Tim, you can’t teach people empathy! They either have it or they don’t.” My response to her is that unless they are a psychopath or a narcissist, then they have the capability to learn. The problem lies with their shoes.

When I ask people in my classes from Management courses to conflict resolution or customer service what empathy is, I invariably get one person who says: “Walking in someone else’s shoes.”

This is easy to do if whatever the other person is experiencing does not directly confront your situation. The problem that exists with empathy in the workplace is that most people won’t take their own shoes off first and, therefore, they find it pretty hard to walk in somebody else’s. If your friend, who doesn't work with you, tells you their child is ill, it may be easier to empathise with them than if you were their boss, and they needed time off to tend to their sick child and you were relying on them to finish a critical project.

One of the reasons perhaps different generations often do not get along is because of the above issue. They have differences but fail to accept the other because it takes work to deal with the discomfort that the difference generates.

Here are three points to get the best out of people:

  1. Take an interest in others. Chit chat is not a way of killing time; it is a way of deepening relationships. Enquiring about people not only has them feeling significant – an important human need – it gives you clues as to what is important to them. Ultimately, this engenders respect.
  2. See their strengths, as well as their weaknesses, and work out how to harness their strengths and then work with them to mitigate their weaknesses.
  3. Empathise with their position, then they are more likely to listen to you. By the way, empathy is not “I understand, but…”

You may as a manager, expect that people should bend to your style rather than you adapting to them as individuals. Let me leave you with a marketing analogy. Brands such as Coke and McDonalds spend millions reaching out to an audience with ads that will attract them to use (or continue to use) their product/s. Of course, they have millions to spend but whilst they attract a lot of people with those millions, there are others they don’t connect with. They use a 'scatter gun' approach, but they have to understand their audience to hook them.

A blogger who does not have as much money as the above brands has to go to where the audience they want to attract is and then do or state things that will impress the audience to follow them. They use a more tailored approach, but again they need to resonate with their audience to be followed.

Unless your leadership brand is as good as say Apple, which has people who will camp out for days just to see what you produce next, you might want to go where your people are at, find a way to connect to them and then lead the way.

For more information, take a look at New Horizons' Management and Leadership courses.

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About the Author:

Tim Higgs  

Tim has been involved in the corporate training industry for over 15 years; seven of these have been as the Portfolio Manager and Senior Facilitator at New Horizons. Tim holds a Graduate Diploma (Psych/Couns), a masters’ degree in Cultural Psychology and a bachelor’s degree in Business, giving him a unique theoretical backdrop for understanding human performance in the workplace. This complements his actual experience of working within the corporate sector in sales and management positions and owning and running a small business. Having worked with individuals and groups in both clinical and business settings, Tim has a fantastic insight into human behaviour, motivation and the issue of human change.

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